-by Ernie Diaz
We’ve visited the touchy subject of environmental determinism. We’ve determined that those from the frozen North don’t necessarily lack warmth, or spend an inordinate amount of time developing DIY furniture.
But come on, there must be some link between a people’s surroundings and their cultural characteristics. Humanity can’t altogether escape Darwin’s biological gaze. Look at Jiangsu. A more populous and chaotic tide pool you’d not have found pre-Tang Dynasty.
There’s far more to adaptation than kill or be killed, though. Rivers bring change, new species, and at last refinement. That’s the long view, of course. In the meantime, environment doesn’t determine history, singular people do.
Herein a brief tale of how a little town went from muddy bank on a river to a place of great cultivation, a place you can easily visit today, after you’ve realized that the charm of Suzhou is best taken in through travel pamphlets. That little town, 15 klicks west of Suzhou, is Mudu, “Wood Clogging the River”.
The Spring and Autumn Period of China’s history may sound poetic, but then there’s that alliterative lilt to “World War One”, as well. In those days, in Suzhou as in Sparta, nothing was better than to crush the enemy, and to hear the lamentations of their women. The local kingdom of Yue had taken a drubbing from neighboring Wu, but even back then the Chinese were adepts in the long-horizon art of submitting one’s way to victory.
Yue king-turned-vassal Goujian was rotting in his new overlord’s dungeons, but he also had that indispensable dynastic accessory – a canny minister, one Fan Li. Knowing a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, he considered the new King of Wu, renowned for over-exercising his broad sexual prerogatives. Fan Li guessed that a woman of both unsurpassed beauty and righteousness would so preoccupy a hound like new king Fucai that the vassal state of Yue would be neglected until the time was ripe for rebellion.
Suzhou and its surrounds are famed for female beauty – something about the water and eating silkworm pupae. So there were loads of babes in the area, even in the rough and tumble Spring and Autumn Period. There were babes, and then there was Xishi. So lovely and graceful was Xishi that, when she washed her silks in the river, the fish would forget to swim, making her dinner an easy catch. However, hers was also that virginal, innocent beauty much prized in a culture whose men still find that air of inexperience irresistible. Fan Li had his ideal horny king bait.
Maybe one highly-principled organism changes the environment, and then the environment shapes all the more easily- molded creatures. Hardened conqueror Fucai proved malleable clay in Xishi’s chaste hands. He fired capable generals, cut Yue prisoners slack, anything to get himself into her good graces, and hopefully her bed.
He even built Guanwa, ‘Babe Palace’, on nearby Lingyan Mountain, a three-year project, just to please her. Forests were made wood-pile, then shipped down the river to the mountain, in such profusion as to give Mudu its name.
To no avail. Fucai most likely gained her bed, but never her favor. The struggle went on seventeen years, by which time the neglected Yue clique gathered enough power to usurp and rout the Wu army. King Fucai took his own life, and Xishi took to life on a houseboat with Fan Li, her handler. Whether she drowned later is still a matter of speculation, but all are in agreement that she is one of China’s Four Beauties.
That was all twenty-five centuries ago. Another singular individual, Qin Shihuang, would transform conniving from martial to legal pursuit. Many setbacks along the way, but by the Song, Jiangsu was a home for civilized souls, free to cultivate and eat their silkworms, provided they honored their place in a harmonious society.
Private space is the better half of Chinese aesthetics, nowhere more manifest than in Mudu, like its now tawdry sister once a horti-heaven of much manicured, walled-off nature. Poets and scholars thrived here, bringing home imperial champions out of all demographic proportion.
America peddles its cartoon and cowboy fantasies in theme parks. The Chinese fantasy lies in an idealized past; of course it must be flogged, recreated for pride and profit in towns like Mudu. But competing on those terms is pure folly. No rides in these towns, and no one’s returning our calls about local IMAX thrill rides into battle against Yuan cavalry.
If you want to score, you work with what you’ve got. Mudu has the gardens and canals, but on much smaller scale than Suzhou. That’s kind of the point nowadays, though, isn’t it? This cultural trough, with Hollywood in its deepest crevasse, this age too must pass. How many hundred years hence people will look back to Gershwin, not Gaga, surely. There’s the environment, and then there’s the survival instinct.